Tomorrow, I leave for London on a trip that is mostly for leisure but partly to research my newest novel, as yet untitled, and only two-thirds written. Here is a short preview of that novel, which, a kind of ghost story, is really not much like my first novel, Effie Marten, at all. Take a look, and leave a comment to let me know what you think.
I’m not sure when the noises began, or why I first began to pay attention to them. All I know is that one morning, tired and hung-over, I hunched over my cup of coffee, breathing in its bitter odor, regretting the fact that I hadn’t been to the stores to buy any milk, or cream, or even non-dairy creamer, wondering how I would spend my day, when I heard a sigh so sad and plaintive it made me forget my own misery, and I sat up to look around, thinking Andrew hadn’t left yet for work.
“Drew?” I took a sip of the coffee, clenched my teeth at its unaccustomed bitterness, and swallowed. “Is that you?” There was no answer, so I stood up and walked to our tiny bathroom, pulling my robe tight around my nightgown. Flannel alone, I have learned, is not enough to keep out the chill of a January morning in England, especially when one lives in a sprawling mansion that has been converted to flats.
“Are you still here?” I glanced in the bathroom, took a quick peek into the spare bedroom we used as a study, and, cradling my cup in my hand, walked back to the kitchen. “I guess not,” I said aloud. Talking to myself was becoming a habit these days, one that I had not yet grown alarmed about.
I sat back down, set my cup down on the chic black dining table, and rubbed my pounding temples. What could that noise have been? Probably heating pipes or something like that. Back in the States, I’d lived in a variety of places that made sounds: shifting foundations, stiff winds, even small earthquakes could account for a lot of normal creaking household noises. England, too, must have its causes for these things, especially when one considered that everything was about a thousand years older here than in the United States.
Let’s face it, I told myself: there’s no chance at all that this beautiful old building is situated on top of an Indian burial ground, so just forget about it. I nodded, as if I’d said the words aloud, as if someone else had said them to me and I was agreeing with them, and lifted my cup to my lips. Drinking deep, I now welcomed the scalding bitterness of the coffee. It was real, unlike the sound that had set me on edge. It was something that appealed to the senses, something you could count on, something predictable and knowable. I took another sip, thinking that milk would have made the coffee better, but somehow less real. Sometimes, I said out loud, my voice echoing in the empty flat, bitterness was just what you needed to get you going.
I hadn’t been in England all that long, had been married even less time. My life up to this point had been pretty boring, in fact. A childhood in the suburbs of Houston, Texas. A stint at a large public university, followed by a meltdown of sorts—the usual kind, which consisted largely of wondering what I was doing with my life, how I was going to support myself, an in fact, what the point of life really was—during which I dropped out of school, relinquished my career goals of becoming a history professor, and moved back home in utter desperation. My parents were nice enough about it, but we all knew I couldn’t stay there long, couldn’t keep working as a secretary, no matter how noble (read: underfunded) the non-profit organization I worked for was. The money just wasn’t there, and although I wasn’t greedy by any means, I needed to have enough to live on my own. At 22 years old, I just didn’t want to be living in the bedroom I grew up in. After mulling it over for a year and a half, I decided the only solution was to return to school. It would buy me another year or so while I figured out how to manage the age-old problem: what would I do in order to make ends meet?
So I enrolled in a computer programming school—it wasn’t an academic program, but rather a training school of sorts designed to get people into the workforce quickly—that was located just across the freeway from my house. Actually, it was across several freeways, all of them crowded with SUVs and luxury sedans, it seemed to me, wending their way through traffic to make it to the next soccer game, or board meeting, or shopping trip.
I’d picked computer programming solely because I needed to be sure of getting a job after college. I’d had enough of the nobility of the liberal arts and how they prepared you for life, not work. Maybe if I’d been sure of getting into a fine graduate school and finding the funding to support me, I’d have been less bitter, but I’d spent too much time poring over placement data, and I knew how many history majors were out pounding the pavement looking for work. Many of them were finding it, too: as baristas, and convenience store clerks, and cell phone sales personnel.
But I’d done my research, and all the data suggested that the best field to enter was computer programming, the wave of the future. It had been the wave of the future for three decades now, and apparently was only just now coming into its own. That sounds kind of sketchy to me now, but at the time, I was desperate, and it was good enough for me. I have a good head for languages, and once I convinced myself programming was just another language, it seemed to work. I learned just enough and no more to become barely competent as a programmer, and that only by the end of the training module. Luckily, I had a job offer with a large oil company, which I took immediately, without listening to my conscience—or my heart.
So, by age 26, I finally had my first job and my career all laid out for me. True, I had no real love for what I did, but it was a solid paycheck, it was regular, and it was ample for my needs. All I had to do is make it the next 41 years to retirement, and I was set.
I actually got myself to believe that.
For a few weeks, anyway.
Within two months, I had had to sit myself down and give myself a stern talking to. Listen, Meg, I said. You have just what you’ve been wanting, what you decided you needed in life: a steady paycheck and time left over after the work day to pursue your own interests, whether those interests reside in medieval history, or knitting, or raising miniature pot-bellied pigs. After all, I insisted, it’s ungrateful to be bored, to yearn for something more. It was stupid to think that my work life should be fulfilling in the way that my daydreams dictated they should be. That was in books, in fantasies, in movies or television series, I told myself: real people, women with mothers who were medical transcriptionists and fathers who were accountants, people like that just didn’t get the kind of jobs that make them actually want to get up in the morning and go to work. I told myself to buckle down and settle in for a long ride.
So that’s what I did, and I was pretty much failing miserably at it when I got selected for a personnel training program, which entailed six months of further schooling, culminating with three weeks in Kansas City, all expenses paid.
I jumped at the chance.
True, Kansas City isn’t Las Vegas, or Orlando, or San Francisco. I suppose it’s a measure of my discontent that I was so enthusiastic about going to a place that lacked the glamor of the usual convention cities, but there it is. I enrolled in the training program, attended each class dutifully, learned my trade, and at the end of the six months, packed my bags, dropped my cat and my apartment key off at my parents’ house, and headed to Kansas City, which is where I met Andrew Markham.
How I met Andrew and ended up marrying him is another story altogether.